Qantas Airways (ASX: QAN) has declared ‘mea culpa’ over its high rate of flight cancellations during the pandemic, but the company has come out swinging in its defence of allegations that it knowingly disrupted the travel plans of thousands of passengers in 2022.
The airline says no airline can guarantee that any flight can proceed, regardless of the conditions, arguing that the action brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to the Federal Court in August has no legal foundation.
The ACCC has alleged that Qantas engaged in false, misleading or deceptive conduct by advertising tickets for more than 8,000 flights scheduled between May and July last year as it knew that those flights were cancelled.
The watchdog further alleged that Qantas made many of these cancellations ‘for reasons that were within its control’.
In filing its defence with the Federal Court, Qantas acknowledges that the period in question was ‘extremely difficult’ for its customers.
“Restarting flying after the COVID shutdowns proved a challenge for the whole industry, with staff shortages and supply chain issues coinciding with huge pent-up demand,” the airline says in its defence.
“Qantas cancelled thousands of flights as a result and there were many unacceptable delays. While we restarted safely, we got many other things wrong and, for that, we have sincerely apologised.”
However, Qantas argues that the ACCC’s case ‘ignores a fundamental reality and a key condition that applies when airlines sell a ticket’.
“While all airlines work hard to operate flights at their scheduled times, no airline can guarantee that,” Qantas says.
“That’s because the nature of travel – when weather and operational issues mean delays and cancellations are inevitable and unavoidable – makes such a guarantee impossible.
“For this reason, our promise is to get customers on their way to their destination as close as possible to the flight time they book, either on their original or an alternative service at no additional cost.
“If not, we offer a full refund. This is consistent with our obligations under consumer law and is what we did during the period the ACCC examined.”
In relation to cancelled flights that were left on sale for longer than 48 hours, Qantas says it regrets that this occurred.
“But crucially, it does not equate to Qantas obtaining a ‘fee for no service’ because customers were reaccommodated on other flights as close as possible to their original time or offered a full refund,” it says.
“Qantas did not delay communicating with our passengers for commercial gain. Nor did we cancel flights to protect slots, particularly given slot waivers were in place at most airports during that time.”
Among the key allegations by the ACCC is that Qantas kept selling tickets on its website for an average of more than two weeks, and in some cases for up to 47 days, after the cancellations.
The ACCC further alleges that, for more than 10,000 flights scheduled to depart in May to July 2022, Qantas did not notify existing ticketholders that their flights had been cancelled for an average of about 18 days, and in some cases for up to 48 days.
The consumer watchdog is claiming that, for about 70 per cent of cancelled flights, Qantas either continued to sell tickets for the flights on its website for two days or more, or delayed informing existing ticketholders that their flight was cancelled for two days or more, or both.
In its defence, Qantas says the primary reasons for the delays were to give its teams time to establish alternative travel options for customers ‘during a period of massive upheaval’, to avoid further blowouts in call centre wait times, and, in the case of longer delays, it acknowledged some human error.
Qantas, which says it had to process more than 415,000 itinerary changes in February and March 2022 alone, argues that system limitations and the sheer number of flights involved meant it couldn’t remove these flights from sale automatically while also providing impacted customers with alternative flights.
“Given these flights were being cancelled well in advance of travel, we wanted to offer our customers alternatives rather than the uncertainty and frustration that would have existed if we had simply pushed through the cancellation in our system before we were able to offer alternative flights to get them to their destination,” it says.
Qantas blames the flight cancellation on supply chain shortages grounding aircraft, as well as ‘huge spikes in sick leave and self-quarantine requirements’ leaving the company short-staffed.
“Some international borders were also still in flux,” it says.
Qantas also notes that it was the only Australian-based airline flying internationally at that time.
“The level of uncertainty and upheaval was greatest on international routes,” it says.
“Domestically, Qantas ramped up its schedule faster than others because we reasonably believed we could.
“This was supported by the fact we called all employees back to work in December 2021 and had reactivated more aircraft well ahead of borders normalising to prepare for high levels of travel demand.”
Qantas says it has since updated its practices to avoid a repeat of the issues raised by the ACCC.
“Cancelled flights are now taken off sale immediately, well inside the 48 hours that the ACCC case flags,” the company says.
“This is a manual process and would not have been possible during the period the ACCC examined given the level of upheaval at that time.
“Qantas is currently developing a tailored IT solution that would link to our third-party system and automate this process.”
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